Culture or Bible?

Have you ever asked yourself that question? Culture or Bible? Maybe not. Maybe you’ve lived your entire life in the same city or state and have been a part of one or at most a hand full of different churches. Maybe you consider the songs you sing, the way you dress for church, the service times, or even the way that your church worships is entirely biblical – because that is the way it is and the way that it has been for as long as you have known or can remember. Perhaps you’ve never stopped to think that some or all of these aspects of your spiritual life are products of the culture in which you live.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with any of that. Living in the same place, remaining faithful, strengthening the things that remain. Those are all extremely admirable.

But, by chance, if you will, if something were to change at your church…would you be able to adapt? Would you be able to look in your heart and search the scriptures and ask the question: Is this cultural, or is this biblical? Would your stubbornness stir up strife and cause division amongst the brethren?

One thing that serving on the foreign mission field forces a person to do is look at church from a slightly different angle. It would be a terrible disservice to everyone involved to plant an American church on Portuguese soil. Of course, Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. But, he’s not American or caucasian, or dare I even say, baptist?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sent by an independent (that just means completely autonomous and without any outside hierarchy), baptist church in east Tennessee. Our family is supported by independent baptist churches from 11 different states. We’re working to establish a similarly independent baptist church in northern Portugal, with hopes to starts others in the future.

But, the adjectives and denominators that precede the word church should be of much less import than knowing that the body of Christ is growing and His name is being exalted.

So, culture or Bible? Where lies your allegiance?

If the preacher wanted to preach first and sing last, would that throw you for a loop? If your pastor stopped wearing a tie would that somehow disqualify him in your mind? I certainly hope not.

With four distinctly different cultures represented in our Barcelos church, it is often interesting to sort through how and more importantly, why we should do things one way as opposed to another. Brazil celebrates Father’s Day in August. The US celebrates it in June, but Portugal celebrates it in March. While it doesn’t appear that Angola even celebrates Father’s Day. So, what do you do? You probably don’t celebrate it 3-4 different times each year.

And, while the Bible is the ultimate authority for faith and practice, at times we should pay more attention to its silence on certain topics rather than interjecting our own personal and cultural norms into the equation.

The apostle Paul faced some very difficult cultural challenges in his day. There were some folks teaching that unless the men got circumcised, they could not be saved. The gentiles were told that they had to live as Jews in order to receive eternal life. No operation, no salvation.

Paul and Barnabas disagreed. They did not say, “Well that’s the way we’ve always done it, so…”

Rather, all they said was as long as it doesn’t violate Scripture, leave them alone. Salvation is by grace, through faith and not of works. So, they took it to the church for judgment, and here’s what they decided:

And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things. Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. Acts 15:8-20

Let what James said sink in. “…that we trouble not them…”

Circumcision is cultural. Steering clear of idolatry is biblical.

Lord, help us realize the difference in our day and age.

  • Mom

    Son, these are certainly thought-provoking words for most of us. Your fresh perspective, brought about by God placing you where He wanted you, is certainly instructive for me. I hope the questions you have posed in this post will cause me to examine my heart and the scriptures when I feel critical of how others differ from me in their style of worship.

    • Michael

      Thanks, Mom. I can’t wait until you and Mike come visit so we can talk in person.

  • Dennis Kirk

    Good thoughts Bro, Michael and so so true. I have been speaking for three weeks to our teens about illegal immigration. I shared three words with them – Country, Constitution, Christian. I love my country. I support and believe in our Constitution. But I must always be first and foremost a Christian. We are all full of “pre-conceived” ideas, but are they Biblical? Culture or Bible? O God help me to be Biblical.

    • Michael

      That’s what I want to be too, brother, but I feel like I first have to pray, “Lord, give me the courage to be biblical when others may be driven more by culture.” Thanks for the comment.

  • The Domestic Fringe

    So, so good. We need to be thinking about this. In the old, American churches we’re in all the time, the battle always comes down to someone’s preference. It doesn’t have anything to do with what is Biblical or not, it’s about what people like and feel comfortable with. When our preferences on non-Biblical issues in the church become more important than seeing people saved, we start dying as a body.

    You hit the nail on the head. “So, culture or Bible? Where lies your allegiance?” I think we should all ask this question, and often.

    I had the privilege to be part of a church that was sold out to God in a way that I haven’t seen since. The people honestly wanted to see God work in our community more than they wanted to feel comfortable. I think once you’ve experienced God’s power working through a body of believers, it’s hard to be ok with ordinary (probably a bad word, but I hope you get my meaning) church, just for sake of having church.

    Anyway, great thought provoking post.

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